Universities Are Full of Knowledge; the Freshmen Bring a Little In and the Seniors Take None Away

Abbott Lawrence Lowell? Jonathan Swift? James Pycroft? University of Michigan Students? George Edgar Vincent? Arthur MacMurray? J. Brooks Atkinson? Charles William Eliot? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The people, laboratories, and libraries of a university embody a vast storehouse of knowledge. How did this knowledge accumulate? A humorous response to this question has often been attributed to Abbott Lawrence Lowell who was the President of Harvard University from 1909 to 1933. Would you please examine the history of this witticism?

Quote Investigator: Tracing this jest has been difficult because the phrasing and vocabulary has evolved over time. The earliest match located by QI appeared in 1844 within a book titled “A Course of English Reading: Adapted to Every Taste and Capacity” by Reverend James Pycroft of Trinity College, Oxford. The major literary figure Jonathan Swift received credit. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Swift said that the reason a certain university was a learned place was, that most persons took some learning there, and few brought any away with them, so it accumulated.

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Notes:

  1. 1844, A Course of English Reading: Adapted to Every Taste and Capacity: with Anecdotes of Men of Genius by The Rev. James Pycroft (Trinity College, Oxford), Quote Page 39, Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, London. (Google Books Full View) link